During the 19th century, several small-scale sports festivals across Europe were named after the Ancient Olympic Games. The 1870 Olympics at the Panathenaic stadium, which had been refurbished for the occasion, had an audience of 30,000 people. Coubertin adopted Dr William Penny Brookes’ idea to establish a multi-national and multi-sport event—the ancient games only allowed free male athletes of Greek origin to participate. In 1890, Coubertin wrote an article in La Revue Athletique, which espoused the importance of Much Wenlock—a rural market town in the English county of Shropshire. It was here that, in October 1850, the local physician William Penny Brookes had founded the Wenlock Olympian Games, a festival of sports and recreations that included athletics and team sports, such as cricket, football and quoits. Coubertin also took inspiration from the earlier Greek games organised under the name of Olympics by businessman and philanthropist Evangelis Zappas in 1859, 1870 and 1875. The 1896 Athens Games was funded by the legacies of Evangelis Zappas and his cousin Konstantinos Zappas and by George Averoff who had been specifically requested by the Greek government, through crown prince Constantine, to sponsor the second refurbishment of the Panathenaic Stadium. This the Greek government did despite the fact that the cost of refurbishing the stadium in marble had already been funded in full by Evangelis Zappas forty years earlier.
With deep feeling towards Baron de Coubertin’s courteous petition, I send him and the members of the Congress, with my sincere thanks, my best wishes for the revival of the Olympic Games.
King George I of Greece (21 June 1894)
On 18 June 1894, Coubertin organised a congress at the Sorbonne, Paris, to present his plans to representatives of sports societies from 11 countries. Following his proposal’s acceptance by the congress, a date for the first modern Olympic Games needed to be chosen. Coubertin suggested that the Games be held concurrently with the 1900 Universal Exposition of Paris. Concerned that a six-year waiting period might lessen public interest, congress members opted instead to hold the inaugural Games in 1896. With a date established, members of the congress turned their attention to the selection of a host city. It remains a mystery how Athens was finally chosen to host the inaugural Games. In the following years both Coubertin and Demetrius Vikelas would offer recollections of the selection process that contradicted the official minutes of the congress. Most accounts hold that several congressmen first proposed London as the location, but Coubertin dissented. After a brief discussion with Vikelas, who represented Greece, Coubertin suggested Athens. Vikelas made the Athens proposal official on 23 June, and since Greece had been the original home of the Olympics, the congress unanimously approved the decision. Vikelas was then elected the first president of the newly established International Olympic Committee (IOC).
EVENTS IN THE 1896 OLYMPIC GAMES
On the morning of Sunday 12 April (3 April, according to Julian calendar then used in Greece) King George the great organised a banquet for officials and athletes (even though some competitions had not yet been held). During his speech, he made clear that, as far as he was concerned, the Olympics should be held in Athens permanently. The official closing ceremony was held the following Wednesday, after being postponed from Tuesday due to rain. Again the royal family attended the ceremony, which was opened by the national anthem of Greece and an ode composed in ancient Greek by George S. Robertson, a British athlete and scholar.
Afterwards, the king awarded prizes to the winners. Unlike today, the first-place winners received silver medals, an olive branch and a diploma. Athletes who placed second received copper medals, a branch of laurel and a diploma. Third place winners did not receive a medal. Some winners also received additional prizes, such as Spyridon Louis, who received a cup from Michel Bréal, a friend of Coubertin, who had conceived the marathon event. Louis then led the medalists on a lap of honour around the stadium, while the Olympic Hymn was played again. The King then formally announced that the first Olympiad was at an end, and left the Stadium, while the band played the Greek national hymn and the crowd cheered.
Like the Greek king, many others supported the idea of holding the next Games in Athens; most of the American competitors signed a letter to the Crown Prince expressing this wish. Coubertin, however, was heavily opposed to this idea, as he envisioned international rotation as one of the cornerstones of the modern Olympics. According to his wish, the next Games were held in Paris, although they would be somewhat overshadowed by the concurrently held Universal Exposition.
The concept of national teams was not a major part of the Olympic movement until the Intercalated Games 10 years later, though many sources list the nationality of competitors in 1896 and give medal counts. There are significant conflicts with regard to which nations competed. The International Olympic Committee gives a figure of 14, but does not list them. The following 14 are most likely the ones recognised by the IOC. Some sources list 12, excluding Chile and Bulgaria; others list 13, including those two but excluding Italy. Egypt is also sometimes included because of Dionysios Kasdaglis’ participation. Belgium and Russia had entered the names of competitors, but withdrew.
Ten of the 14 participating nations earned medals, in addition to three medals won by mixed teams, i.e. teams made up of athletes from multiple nations. The United States won the most gold medals* (11), while host nation Greece won the most medals overall (46) as well as the most silver* (17) and bronze* (19) medals, finishing with one fewer gold medal than the United States.
During these inaugural Olympics, winners were given a silver medal, an olive branch, and a diploma, while runners-up received a copper medal, laurel branch, and diploma. The IOC has retroactively assigned gold, silver and bronze medals to the three best placed athletes in each event to comport with more recent traditions.
*As stated in the previous paragraph, it should be noted that the use of ‘Gold medals’ did not occur until the 1904 St. Louis, Missouri Olympic Games to represent a First place finish. The ‘Silver medal’ did not represent Second place until the 1904 Games. In 1896, Silver was given to the winner. ‘Bronze medals’ were not given for Third place initially. In 1896, they were given to the Second place (“runner-up”) finisher. In 1904, they were first given as Third place medals (“second runner-up”).